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[Q&A] John Lydon of Public Image Ltd/Sex Pistols on solving problems, Pussy Riot, and living to annoy a hell of a lot of people



Part of being a successful and iconoclastic rock legend involves being an obstinate fuck-- being notoriously "difficult" often means insisting on doing things your way even if it's going to screw it up for people like your label, or frustrate people like your fans.  Individually, moments of putting out weird records or doing weird tours or singing weirdly may seem like losing the plot, but spread out over a career these moments form the tapestry of a lifetime of awesome difficult-ness.  Which is pretty much where JOHN LYDON is today, after fronting perhaps the most important rock band in the form's history, the Sex Pistols, as a teenager, he formed Public Image Ltd. out of that band's ashes and used PiL as a method of intentional tomfoolery and serious critique for decades to follow.

There's no denying that Lydon hit hard times (resulting, in part, to almost two decades of musical inactivity amidst label squabbles), which explains a) his involvement in a number of Pistols reunions starting in the mid-90s and b) his agreeing to do the following ad for Country Life butter, the proceeds from which he used to revive PiL in a glorious manner that, this year, sees them self-releasing the exceedingly strong This Is PiL:



Lydon brings PiL to Boston's Royale tonight, and they really are a must-see proposition, as he details below in the transcript of my recent conversation with him.  We featured an interview with him in last week's issue, but so much great material had to hit the cutting room floor, that we felt that, in honor of tonight's show, we'd put this out so you could bask in the awesomeness that is being talked at by the legendary Johnny Rotten.  One note: this interview began after ten frustrating minutes attempting to Skype Lydon at his home in England; at times I could hear him but he couldn't hear me, which meant that his repeated shouts of "Hello? Hello?" kind of meant that I got a private a cappela runthrough of the track "Public Image" before we were properly connected:

Hey! Sorry, there was some Skype confusion there for a minute.

Well, no need to worry-- Uncle John is here now, and all is well!

So congrats on This is PiL, love it. One thing that’s interesting about this album is that it seems like you made it in a really positive place-- is that true? What do you think of making art from a positive place?

Well, for a start, you just crammed too many words into one sentence, and to be honest, I began to lose interest in what you were actually saying. Can you calm down?

Sure.

Thank you.

I was asking what it was like to make the new album in what was clearly a positive situation.

Well, for twenty years I have been kept from working, you know, for many different reasons. When we finally got together, I had to put some money against some outstanding debts. But for nearly two years, we toured constantly, and we know each other, and we respect each other. And so this is the end result of that.

It’s interesting, because so many people think that you have be unhappy to make great art.

Well, that would be a very stupid conclusion. For me, I’ve been in bands where I’ve been unhappy, and I’ve still been able to make good music-- but this is great music. It took a long time for me to get there, and I’m happy with what we’ve done.

It seems like people love the stuff you did when you were miserable, but what you’re saying is that you overcame that state.

Look, I’m a human being, I’m capable of every emotion every other human being is capable of. And there’s an enormous diversity in my tastes and my attitudes to things, and this just reflects another point of view. It’s all part of parcel of becoming a fully committed human being. I’m constantly in search of what is right in life, and slowly and surely getting there. I’m by no means a perfect person, but at least I work at it!

People look to a musician because they want this one thing, and you’ve, in a way, refused to do that.

Well, I’m not a cartoon, am I. I come from a very serious mixed-cultural background, since I was ever so young, and all I’ve ever known in life is variety and diversity. And so that naturally is the way it is for me as an adult. Am I blessed that way? Yeah, I’m blessed with the foresight to see that opportunity only comes from diversity in life. I’ve never thought narrow, I’m not judgemental, I’m very open-minded. To some that you would call a fanbase, that can be a problem, because they only want to deal with one aspect of my character. So: tough! You know? Because I’m a human being and I’ve got a lot of problems to solve. Not only mine, but apparently the world’s!

Once you do music, at least in a popular sense, it’s forced to be a commodity where it must fulfill expectations. Has that ever been a frustration for you?

No. I don’t care what other people do, I don’t care what music other people make. If it’s good, then I care. But the majority of it is rubbish, and anything that sells large amounts and dominates the Top 30 tends to be rubbish. But that’s neither here nor there: there’s every opportunity that the general public, at large, will start to consider themselves before they buy rubbish. [dramatic pause] And then there’s PiL! I don’t mean that to sound arrogant, because indeed it isn’t. Because over the last thirty years I’ve had such an enormous influence on everything that you call modern music, and yet it amazes me that people pretend not to know what it is I do. Everybody is out there with a version of it!

My own record label went and signed up every band that was imitating me and spent an enormous amount of money promoting them, but then deliberately pushed me aside and into debt. That’s been my life’s experience. And am I bitter? Far from it! Because I defy anyone to make an album as good as this. D’you know what I mean? It’s like this, mate: I’m uncontaminated by the industry, they’ll never ever ever be able to bring me down. I come from a very pure place. I write from the heart! Every time I put pen to paper, I’m aware that my mother and father need to be proud of what it is their son is doing. And not only that, my whole family, all my friends, need to know that John doesn’t tell a lie. There’s the difference, that I’m not doing this for the money, I’m doing this for the pure love of it. That somebody on this Earth has to start telling it correctly.

Do you feel like when you became an artist, a musician, was this purity part of that?

It was accidental that I joined the Pistols. They thought I was the worst hooligan that they’d ever seen in their life-- and they were right! I started writing straight away and I found instantly that songwriting was the one thing I was made for. Right? I’m probably not a nice human being, probably not a nice person, but I’m a damn fine songwriter. And not too bad a singer, I’m finding. You know? Because I care about it, I put the effort in, I put the work in. And no, I don’t want the awards! For me, the rewards is the work itself, and it would be nice if people paid attention, but it really doesn’t matter. I don’t have to explain what it is I do, I think it stands on its own merit.

I definitely agree! Especially the new album that you’ve put out-- it stands out from the rest of your work, in part from the way it was made.

Well, it has to be, because every time you go into a full body of work, it’s like writing a book, it’s a unique experience.

When you started writing, was that sense of purity there? Or was it--

I’ve always loved writing, reading and writing, because childhood illnesses when I was young put me backwards so I had a lot to catch up with, so I got very involved with reading and writing, and that’s what’s carried me through to today. Also, a huge love of art, and any type of creativity. A child blowing a plastic trumpet I can sit and listen to for hours and it will absolutely be good to my heart. And the more tuneless, the better, because there’s the variety!

How did you develop your own vocal style?

That began the first day I joined the Pistols. Up until that point I’d never sung ever. Because I was sent to Catholic school, and I was well aware that if I had a voice, I’d be put in the choir, and the priests would have access to me. Aaaand, I have written songs about religion, and I’m not surprised at the latest scandals but believe me, those things were going on fifty years ago, just as much as they are today, and fifty years before that! And as young children, we were terrified of the priests, there was a great evil that, in many ways, crushed the idea of me being able to sing. But I found a way out of it, and that was the Sex Pistols. Isn’t that funny? So in many ways, I could say that the Devil made me do it!

Yes-- and you definitely got into that when you wrote the song “Religion” in PiL, such a powerful song.



And every word is true! Every single word. I don’t write songs just for the rhyme; I love it when words rhyme, but the rhyme isn’t what’s important, it’s the pure pertinence of every single syllable, and the enunciation. And the denouncement of Catholicism! And that’s not bad, coming from a Catholic.

Do you feel like it’s important to-- I don’t want say “confront”, but present your audience with something they haven’t seen before? Or to mix things that are difficult with things that are entertaining?

No, I’ve never bothered with any idea of a confession. I write purely as to what absolutely affected me, and giving me a driving energy, and a contempt in life for things. I am a problem solver; if I feel that there’s a situation that needs resolving, i will write about it, regardless of the consequences. I cannot help it if people are morally offended by what I do. They have every right not to listen. Alright? But as for me, I will not take any man, woman, or institution or government judging me wrongly. And these are freedoms that I’ve hard fought for and intend to maintain. Alright? Now as a young man, my songs were discussed under the Traitors and Treasons Act in Britain, in Parliament, which carried a death penalty-- and I’m still here. Alright? So I’m not your average crap punk band from New York! [chuckles] I’m the real deal!

Did you feel, at the time, that the blowback you guys were getting was way more than you bargained for, more than you could deal with?

It was pretty damned painful! The more they’re out to stop you or get you, the more justified you become. Oddly enough, it carries a reward, that kind of hatred. It’s a cleansing of the soul, it tells you that you’ve hit something correctly, because the only thing that gets that kind of punishment and hatred is the truth. Nobody takes a liar seriously!

Listening to this, I can’t help but think that--

How is Romney doing, anyway?

Oh, who can actually tell? I guess he’s doing okay-- better than you’d think.

Speaking of liars, of course! [laughs]

But then who can you trust about this stuff.

I know. But he’s from money, and that’s all you need to know.

But listening to you, I’m kind of reminded of the recent thing in Russia with the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot. What are your thoughts on that?

If Madonna were to have butted out and minded your own business, they might actually have got off a bit. But when assholes like her think they can throw their tuppence in to create a scene, it makes it worse for the girls. The only thing that came out of it with any sense of fun was the second in command in Russia did his press statement saying “Madonna, take off your crucifix and put your knickers back on.” I think that that humiliated her and kind of rubbished the band’s defense. You do not need the likes of Madonna or Paul McCartney to back anything you do in life, and in fact as soon as they attach their name to you, you know it’s gone cheese. And I don’t mean good cheese, I mean gorgonzola! [laughs]

Yeah, and who knows what anyone could have done-- spending a few years in a Russian prison is so clearly unjust for this action.

I don’t know the situation, I’m not in Russia, but good luck to them. They’re not blessed, but they picked the wrong targets. Oddly enough, the Russian Orthodox church is a thing that went against the Communism that they’ve had to endure. So they picked the wrong target. It’s a force of unity in a country that’s dissipating. So it was naive, you have to know clearly what the correct targets are, or you’re gonna end up in a muddle like that. Alright? It’s like I was saying earlier, every single word I use I use clear, so there would be none of that misinterpretation. Saying that, I’m still running a fine line!

Obviously the demise of the music industry is what it is. How do you feel about it, are you freed from this system or is the demise doing more harm than good?

Well, it gave me my initial kick, but unfortunately that kick became a stranglehold, it turned into a rope. And then the demands start coming in, like “Can’t you write a nice record?” And you find yourself trapped. But you know, I mean, I’ve never been nice about record labels, so I can hardly expect decent behavior from them. In many ways, I’m a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I kind of like it like that. It’s just a shame that it took twenty years to break free from it. I was planning on five, but there you go, they’ve got more money and more resilience than I estimated. But I am free now. And I’m not one of those people that hopes I die before I get old. I’m going to go on forever, and I really hope that annoys a hell of a lot of people. The longer I live the more there is to annoy, and I do it quite innocently, you know? God just made some of us a little bit different. He must have a plan! But being a bit of a nature bunny myself, I think nature is chaos.

When PiL came out, a lot of people saw it as a deconstruction, a deconstruction of a rock band, a deconstruction of popular entertainment. Is that at all accurate?

Why would I waste my time taking a perfectly normal tune and taking bits away, which is what “deconstruction” implies? That would mean that I’m still basing it on a regular format. No! I couldn’t give a damn for format-- it’s nice to know what the rules are, but then you reach the point where rules are for fools. And unless you want to sound like every other piece of second-rate ass out there, throw the rulebook out the window and start writing the way you feel. There’s a difference, this is emotional, what we do. We paint colors with words and sound.

One thing I’m curious about: especially with a song like “Deeper Waters”, there’s such a sense of the ocean and your experience with boating, did you think that your experience with that world would find it’s way into your music?



Well, what “world” are we talking?

You know, moving to California, getting involved in boating--

Well, you must bear in mind that I’ve always had a very deep connection to the ocean. And not only that, the guitarist, Lu, he comes from a family of Navy seafarers from the Royal Navy, so a lot of influences have got into it.

When I was a child, we would go to Ireland every year and I would go off in a rowboat fishing out to sea with my granddad. And that’s all part of it. And the family farm, if you call it that, they had no electricity, the only light in the house at night was a lighthouse beacon. You know? These are all poignant pictures, and very relevant, and they don’t just come from recent experiences. They’re childhood memories that flash in your brain and somehow become pertinent to adult life, and the juxtaposition between all of that is perfect on a song like “Deeper Waters”, because I’m using the ocean as an expression of cleansing myself from all the evil fucks that tried to bad-influence me, that would try to lead me to the shores, dash me on the rocks.

That’s fascinating, especially since so much of your music would probably tend to get categorized as city music, urban music, and this is so against that preconception.

Oh, we’re far larger than that, but most music critics aren’t smart enough or wise enough to catch what’s going on in the world, and they limit us to their narrow scope, which is really unfair. But, we’re just trying to get America to listen, you know? We need to start getting some bums on seats, because we’re probably the best live band you’ll ever see ever, in your entire life. And this goes beyond mere music, this is high drama. When we hit a stage, it’s becomes something else. You are completely immersed in it with us. We will free your soul, and there’s no two ways about it, that’s what PiL does!

It’s definitely true that at your shows, you make eye contact, it’s an experience.

I look at you as one to one, I don’t look down on you, I don’t look up to you, I look at you as a fellow human being and I catch the eye of every single person I can. I let you know that I’m here from the heart, this is innocence here. No vested interest, no ulterior motives, we’re not showing off, I’m showing you how I feel. That’s a very vulnerable position I put myself in, so let’s appreciate each other on that level.

How is it innocence?

Well, I don’t know how I’m gonna be from the second I walk on to the second I leave, I’m completely open, you know? You can judge me wrongly and deliberately misunderstand, or you can give me the chance to show that there’s something of value in this, by being so open and honest. These songs are about the death of our parents, friends dying, love feuds and tragedies, and at the same time great moments of joy and sharing, and these aren’t easy things to open up to a stranger!

It’s so interesting to hear you talk about your songs in this manner, it’s so deliberate and direct the emotion of what you do is.

Yeah, I’m not crap with an acoustic guitar, three notes and two rhymes. You know, and that basically sums of most of them.

Anyway, whatever, I’ve got to move now! I’ve got Things To Do! I’m sorry sir, but that’s all the time I have.

Alright, take care, John!

Alright, may the road rise! Cheers.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

DBROCKMAN@PHX.COM:: @THEBIZHASLANDED

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD. :: Royale, 279 Tremont St, Boston :: October 15 @ 7 pm :: 18+ :: $32 :: 617.866.8933 or boweryboston.com

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